More money for local teachers?

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Equitable pay continues to elude Tennessee's teachers.
   That according to a ruling upheld Tuesday by the Tennessee Supreme Court holding for the third time since 1993 that the state's system for funding public schools -- specifically teachers' salaries -- violates the state's Constitution.
   "My concern is how we will continue our funding plan and how the local government will respond," said Dr. Judy Blevins, Superintendent of Elizabethton City Schools, of the court's ruling.
   In the decision written Tuesday by Justice E. Riley Anderson, the court said the Salary Equity Plan adopted in 1995 by the Tennessee General Assembly to equalize teachers' salaries failed to comply with the state's constitutional obligation.
   The salary equity issue entered the courts in 1988 when an association of small school systems filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee alleging that the state's method of funding public education violated the education and equal protection clauses of the Tennessee Constitution.
   The lawsuit called for a more equal distribution of public school funds.
   The Tennessee Supreme Court rendered a decision in favor of the schools, but deferred to the General Assembly to fashion an appropriate remedy to address funding deficiencies.
   Consequently, in 1992, then-Gov. Ned McWherter and the legislature adopted the Education Improvement Act, which included the Basic Education Program (BEP). Teachers salaries were not made components of the BEP that funds K-12 public education.
   The Salary Equity Plan was later adopted in 1995, but it provided one-time adjustments and were not added to the BEP. The case returned to the Supreme Court that year.
   "I'm not sure what to do about it at this time," said Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, who is vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "I don't want to take from one county and give to another because I don't think that is good."
   Carter County ranks 122nd out of 138 state school systems in salary level for starting teachers, with those with no previous experience starting at $25,927, according to a salary survey compiled by the Tennessee Education Association.
   The starting salary for a teacher with Elizabethton City Schools is $26,945, placing the city school system 77th in the state, according to the TEA.
   Memphis City Schools rank the highest in Tennessee, starting teachers at $33,306, according to the TEA report.
   The Crockett County and Bells school districts are tied for last among starting teacher's salaries at $25,040.
   Disparity is also significant between starting salaries for city schools and county schools.
   Bristol Tennessee City Schools rank third and Kingsport City Schools rank fourth among starting teacher salaries, while Sullivan County schools rank 106th.
   A teacher salary report issued by the National Education Association in July found Tennessee's average salary of classroom teachers for 2000-2001 was $37,431, which ranked 32nd among the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
   The national teacher's union reported that Tennessee's ranking had not changed in three years. The state's average teacher's salary ranks below six Southeastern states; the highest difference being Georgia ($4,785) and the lowest South Carolina ($507).
   City teachers salaries are funded through the state of Tennessee and local portion of sales tax revenues, said Blevins.
   "When we have and are able to give a raise, we try to give it based on the total salary," said Blevins. "We combine the state and local salary to give a raise to our teachers and our entire staff."
   The Carter County School Board voted in August to cut seven mentor teachers' positions and two paraprofessional staff jobs for the 2002-2003 school year. The cuts were recommended after a $670,000 increase for personnel insurance premiums created a budget deficit of more than $500,000 for the system.
   The cuts follow the elimination of five county school staff positions in 2001-2002 school year.
   Crowe said the salary disparity revolved around the formula based on sales tax revenues of each county and/or city. The Salary Equity Plan formula based money used to supplement teachers' salaries was dependent on the retail ability of each county, he said.
   "It seems more a local inequity brought about by the economic condition of each county," said Crowe.
   The three-term Republican felt the state's revenue plan raising sales tax one percent created appropriate new revenues to fund government. He also said improved performance by the state and national economy would provide necessary revenue to fund a move to make salaries equitable.
   "If the economy gets back to a four percent spending rate or so we should be fine, but that depends on the war in the Gulf War," said Crowe. "The $200 million would not be hard to come up with if that's what we need for this education equity."
   Richard Gabriel, Democratic nominee running against Crowe for the Third District senate seat on Nov. 5, felt the existing salary equity formula would have to equate pay that avoided penalizing teachers in rural areas with low industrial development and modest retail growth.
   "The money is going to have to be brought from somewhere because these teachers are going to get shorted and its not right," said Gabriel. "It's something that can be fixed, but it is something that someone needs to present a plan to solve rather than let go."
   Charlie Mattioli, who is running as an independent candidate against Crowe, felt a revamped state revenue structure would better fund equitable teacher pay than the recent state plan.
   "The tax reform plan that I am supporting would be better equipped to do it which is rather paltry in terms of what teachers have had," said Mattioli. "To do something better we're going to have to have a better funding source."
   Mattioli spent over 30 years as a teacher in both the K-12 and university settings. He said Alaska education officials adjusted salaries to pay teachers more in the most rural sections of the state. He also said salary disparity would only drive Tennessee's best teachers to other states such as North Carolina and Georgia where salaries were higher.
   "The way you get good educators and keep them is having attractive salaries," said Mattioli who taught K-12 education in Florida, Alaska, and Tennessee. He has also taught as adjunct faculty member at the University of Alaska and at East Tennessee State University.
   "Salary base has a tremendous affect on having people and keeping them because that's what the basis of retirement is."
   Crowe said the Senate Education Committee plans to meet Oct. 22 to discuss the issue. The ruling means the next governor -- and the new General Assembly -- will face the issue in next year's budget cycle.
   "The next governor is going to have to decide what to do," said Crowe. "At least we have a direction from the courts that we are going to have to find a way to make the salaries more equal statewide."
   The state's 2002-2003 budget provides a 2.5 percent pay raise to teachers. Blevins said the city system opted to implement that pay raise for employees in July through local government funding rather than wait until the state's appropriation in January.
   Federal funding covers the salaries of city teachers who work in federal programs such as Special Education. School systems are prohibited from using federal dollars from other purposes.
   Blevins said how a recalculated equity formula would affect the city system remains unknown until the state legislature devises a new funding plan.
   "It will impact us, but I feel confident we'll be able to work something out," she said.